• Australia was hit hard by bushfires in 2019. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
ANU researcher and Euahlayi man, Bhiamie Williamson tells the inquiry Indigenous peoples were uniquely and twice as likely to be impacted during the summer's catastrophic bushfire season.
Nadine Silva

19 Jun 2020 - 12:21 PM  UPDATED 19 Jun 2020 - 12:27 PM

A number of Indigenous experts spoke to the bushfire royal commission on Thursday to explain how traditional land and fire management practices could improve Australia's resilience to natural disasters. 

Australian National University researcher and Euahlayi man, Bhiamie Williamson, told the inquiry the bushfires affected 96,000 Indigenous peoples in NSW, VIC, the ACT and the Jervis Bay region.

Mr Williamson said Indigenous peoples in these four jurisdictions were twice as likely to be impacted as non-Indigenous people, in addition to being uniquely impacted.

"The impacts of disasters such as bushfires deeply impacts the existence of Aboriginal peoples, indeed, the destruction of landscape features whether that be plant species, native animals or cultural heritage sites such as scar trees, rock art or stone arrangements, threatens Aboriginal groups as distinct cultural beings attached to the land."

Mr Williamson also said that cultural burning is but one tool of cultural land management - a term that does not ring true if Aboriginal people are not in control of the planning, preparation, implementation and monitoring.

“Cultural burning equips Aboriginal land managers with the ability to weave the knowledges of their distinct groups, groups from particular places and with ancient jurisdictions, with the latest scientific information and technologies," he said.

“By weaving together ancient knowledge and modern technologies, Aboriginal groups are fundamentally creating a new body of knowledge whilst also remaining firmly grounded in the Indigenous principles of place and of balance.”

Earlier in the day, the CEO of the Australian Forests Products Association, Ross Hampton, told the inquiry that Indigenous cultural burning practices were “a fantastic thing that’s happened but that’s also limited by our communities - we can’t just go around burning off all year.”

Post-disaster commissions in the past five to 10 years have ignored and overlooked recommendations to interact with Aboriginal people, said Mr Williamson.

There is a distinct lack of disaster recovery research that engages with Indigenous voices and their experiences as unique communities with specific vulnerabilities and as First Nations attached to the land.”

Understanding ways Indigenous Australians can improve the country’s resilience is something the royal commission aims to do in light of the unprecedented bushfire season.

Paleoecologist, Dr Michael Fletcher from the University of Melbourne said, “there is no analogue, there is no comparable fire that we’ve discovered on earth that stretches from Queensland to Victoria present in the geological record.”


Indigenous leader calls for a rethink of NSW backburning policy
A NSW Indigenous burn practitioner says the state's backburning policy and red tape needs a re-think after the summer's bushfire crisis.